Nope, Jeff Bezos is not a Stoic

I don’t like billionaires. Not individually, of course, I’m sure some of them are reasonably decent human beings with whom it would be pleasant to share a double shot of top notch 18-yr old Scotch (at their expense, of course). But I simply can’t shake the notion that in order to become a billionaire one has to exploit people, and that therefore their wealth is ill gotten, morally (if not legally) speaking. Call me a socialist, if you’d like, but I think a 90% taxation rate on wealth over a billion is a good beginning.

Now that I’ve turned away half my audience, I can tell you the real reason for this post: billionaires are not Stoics, despite repeated claims that at least some of them “live by” ancient Stoic philosophy, as in this article by Sam Barry, published in (surprise, surprise!) Entrepreneur magazine.

Barry begins by mentioning investor and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss, who claims that Stoic philosophy is “a simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort,” a caricature of Stoicism that would have Seneca turn in his tomb, many times over.

Alleged “stoic” billionaires, according to Barry, include Warren Buffett, Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad, and Mark Zuckerberg. Why? Well, Buffett famously still lives in the same house he bought in 1958, Kamprad drives a 1993 Volvo, and Zuckerberg drives a black Acura that cost less than $30,000. You see, these people do these things because they “focus on the things that really matter,” such as exploiting other people’s labor, exerting undue political pressure, and refusing to do much about the socially pernicious spread of fake news. How Stoic of them.

Other “stoics” mentioned in the article include Lebron James (not a billionaire, since he’s worth a puny $400 million), who only uses free wifi, as well as Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Shark Tank investor Mark Cuban. Bezos is on record as saying that “frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do,” which I suppose is why he is so frugal with his employees’ compensation and benefits, and fiercely opposes their attempts at unionizing. Similarly, Cuban states that “the more you stress over bills, the more difficult it is to focus on your goals.” Easy for him to say, but a bit more difficult to convey that message to people who have to work two or three jobs just to pay those bills.

We are told by Barry that “Marcus Aurelius famously sold all of his palace furnishings to pay down the debt weighing down on him and his people,” which is interesting for two reasons: first, it is historically inaccurate, since Marcus sold some of his furnishings (and his wife’s jewelry) in order to help pay for the expenses of a defensive war against the Marcomanni, on the northern frontier of the empire. Second, I don’t see Jeff Bezos doing anything like it, as there doesn’t seem to be a single altruistic bone in his entire skeleton (judging from his actions, I don’t know the men personally. I’m willing to be pleasantly surprised.).

Apparently, another thing that makes these men (yeah, they are usually men) “stoic” is their humble demeanor. George Soros said that “once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.” Which is fine, and certainly is the sort of advice we get from Epictetus and Socrates. But is this Stoicism? (Hint: no. Explanation coming in a few paragraphs.)

Finally, according to Barry, billionaires are Stoics because they know how to manage their time efficiently, something that Seneca certainly discusses in his Letters to Lucilius (particularly in Letter I).

The Entrepreneur article concludes by reminding us of the three “tricks” that make for good stoic business conduct:

* Live below your means

* Think of failure as a stepping stone to success

* Control your limited time

“Actively applying these three seemingly simple principles to our lives,” Barry tells us, “can transform us to new levels of health, wealth and happiness. The Stoics called it eudaimonia. The good life.”

Well, the Stoics certainly called it that, but what we get from the Entrepreneur article is nothing like eudaimonia in the Stoic sense (which is, by the way, better rendered as “the life worth living,” not “the good life.”) Let’s see why.

Setting aside Barry’s use of the extremely ambiguous word “happiness,” neither of the other two goals (increasing health and wealth) are anything that a Stoic would care for. Both health and wealth are classed into the “preferred indifferents,” meaning things that is okay to pursue as a secondary goal, because they make our lives easier, but not as primary objectives. In fact, Seneca warns us that wealth can positively get in the way of our quest to become better human beings (the true goal of Stoic philosophy, pace Barry):

Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough. (Letters II.6)

And again:

Come now, contrast a good man who is rolling in wealth with a man who has nothing, except that in himself he has all things; they will be equally good, though they experience unequal fortune. (Letters LXVI.22)

The fundamental mistake made by Barry (and by Tim Ferriss, who really does think of himself as a Stoic) is to separate Stoic techniques from the underlying philosophy. But as I’ve argued before, Stoicism is a philosophy, not a magic wand, a bag of tricks, or a prosperity gospel. The reason people like Bezos are not Stoic has nothing to do with their alleged embracing of the three basic pieces of advice listed above. It has to do with the fact that they don’t seem -- at least from the outside -- to practice any of the cardinal virtues, and moreover to act contrary to the basic goals of Stoic philosophy.

Let’s take Bezos, again, as the obvious example, though I do think similar considerations apply to any billionaire, regardless of whether he leans Right, Left, or Libertarian (the latter is the case for Bezos). Beginning with the four virtues:

Practical wisdom is the knowledge of what is truly good and bad for us, which amounts respectively to good and bad judgments. Nothing else. Bezos, by contrast, clearly seems to think that wealth and fame are really good for him, and he works tirelessly in that direction. From a Stoic perspective, he is misguidedly wasting a lot of time.

Courage is the notion that we should be willing to stand up to do the right thing, i.e., we should be morally engaged in our community. I see little evidence that Bezos has ever done such a thing.

Justice is the idea that we should treat others fairly and with dignity, qua human beings. Amazon’s labor policies are the diametrical opposite of that.

Temperance consists in doing everything in right measure, not just being “frugal” with other people’s salaries and benefits.

Even more fundamentally, as argued above, Bezos is simply missing the boat on what matters in life, according to the Stoics. The point of a good human life, in our philosophy, is to use reason to improve the human cosmopolis, just as Marcus said:

Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires. (Meditations IV.24)

Now, I’m sure Bezos thinks that starting Amazon squarely falls into that category, but I (and many of his employees) think he is sorely mistaken, indulging in nothing more than convenient rationalizations (because people -- including Bezos -- never do things they truly think are bad, they just do bad things out of lack of wisdom, another crucial Stoic idea).

Throughout all this billionaire bashing I’m sure some readers will have formulated the obvious objection: wasn’t Seneca the second wealthiest man in the empire? He was. And that’s a problem. But as I’ve written elsewhere, Seneca was a human being, not a sage. And he was well aware of it:

What, then, am I myself doing with my leisure? I am trying to cure my own sores. If I were to show you a swollen foot, or an inflamed hand, or some shrivelled sinews in a withered leg, you would permit me to lie quiet in one place and to apply lotions to the diseased member. But my trouble is greater than any of these, and I cannot show it to you. The abscess, or ulcer, is deep within my breast. Pray, pray, do not commend me, do not say: ‘What a great man! He has learned to despise all things; condemning the madnesses of man’s life, he has made his escape!’ I have condemned nothing except myself. There is no reason why you should desire to come to me for the sake of making progress. You are mistaken if you think that you will get any assistance from this quarter; it is not a physician that dwells here, but a sick man. (Letters to Lucilius, CXVIII, 8-9)

Can you even conceive of Jeff Bezos saying something like this? I didn’t think so.

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